I found it in the backroom, in the corner under piles of old newspapers. It was an old box, simple and rough. Inside there was the smell of lavender, the crumbling flowers tucked away at the corners. And lying in the middle…
I reach in, touching the first one with trembling fingers. Letters, faded with crumbling edges. Carefully, I pull one out. The old rocking chair huddles beside my box of toys. I haven’t opened that box in ages, but I remember everything in it. But that chair was mothers. She rocked all three to sleep with it. It’s covered in dust, but I don’t care. With her safely buried, it is all I have left.
Lifting the box, I cradle in my arms like a baby. The chair is only a few steps away, and once there I sink down. Its sweet smell is gone, smothered by thirty years of dust, but every memory is still alive.
The box settles at my feet, the first letter in my hand. Gently, I unfold it, glancing carefully at the date.
I promised to write to you daily, but I’m afraid I haven’t kept my word very well. I don’t have any excuse that can properly account for my neglect, but I can only say that I have been busy. Everything just happened all at once. Mother is pregnant again, Eddie proposed to Grace last week, and grandmother has taken ill.
I saw the newspaper this morning, as I know you did as well. I’ve been watching it like a hawk since this war started, I never let it get past me anymore. You always told me that I should pay more attention to what goes on in the world. I’ve done my best to take your advice, even going so far as to ask for lessons from father concerning politics. To tell the truth I still don’t understand it much. It makes dressmaking seem easy in comparison, and that is saying something.
I wish I could see your face now; it would make me feel better. War has started. It was going on before, but it seemed so far away. It’s home now, it was settled on my doorstep when I walked out this morning. I’ve started to think of it now, dream of it. It fills my mind, or you fill my mind. I can’t help it.
What did you say when you read those terrible words on the newspaper front page? What was the first thought in your head? Did you think of us; of what we had planned? If you leave, that little cottage we wanted to build may never be built. Those boys and girls won’t ever come and leave muddy footprints all over the floor I will try to keep clean. I might never have the chance to be upset over the little shoes they will walk through the mud with, or the clothes they will always be ripping.
Don’t bother answering any of what I have just written. I was just thinking aloud; you don’t need to answer. You don’t have to answer. What you do next will tell me the real answer.
Loving you, and my country,
I understand the way you feel, and I don’t blame you for not having time to reply. This reply of mine was also a bit later than it should have been. I didn’t know what to say or what I was going to do. This first part of your letter was like a knife in my heart. How can I deprive us of such a life? Of the child we both long for? But the ending was beautiful, and perfect. It told me what you really meant, dearest.
I too love my country, Jeanne. And I belong to her. It is my duty, and privilege, to take up arms when she calls for aid. Yes, I have enlisted. I’ll just have enough time to visit before I’m called on.
I barely recognize my home, or such a home as it is. Everyone is gone or going. Men that are unable to go walk around moping. Life is quiet, and what talking there is focuses on what is happening overseas. I miss the way it was, and hope it returns.
Fear, sometimes it consumes me. I’m afraid of what lies ahead, but I know we can handle it. What I am really afraid of is that there will be no “we” across the lines. You won’t be there, and I will be lucky to hear from you at all.
I’m sorry the reply is so short. My heart is full, but I feel like I’ve been drinking. My room keeps moving in circles, I can’t find the words to describe anything.
Loving my country, and you,
Carefully, I place the first two letters to the side. A little brown note lies directly underneath, not a letter but something with just a few sentence scrawled. I know the hand, it’s moms.
James dropped by the house as he promised. He spoke to father privately, and then called for me. He asked me if I would consent to marry him then and now. I was already engaged to the silly boy. I told my Jamie that I would love too. It was either marry him now, or maybe not at all. It wasn’t much of a choice. We were married the next morning, 10:00am, in the living room, 06/17/1917. Father Müller was present, on a mission run from a nearby church. God seemed to have it all laid out for us. Mother let me wear her wedding dress. James left that evening at 8:30.
I had no idea three days ago that I would be a married woman with a husband in the army. Strange how things turn out. I’ve hung up the dress, taken off the veil, and we finished off the last bit of cake after you left. It could almost be a dream with no groom there to remind me that it was real.
People called for tea today. Do you remember Mrs. Lansky? You always referred to her as “that old gossip.” We were very disrespectful I suppose, but that is the truth. She came, and brought a friend that was just as nosy as she prides herself on being. She introduced me as Jeanne Riche. I wasn’t really thinking, and corrected her. I can still hear myself. “No, Jeanne Archer.” The look I got was incredible. Well, James Archer, we have provided my little town with more gossip then they very dreamed of having. They should be thrilled.
I repeat the name to myself. “Mrs. James Archer. Jeanne Archer.” It is so beautiful, to have your name. Hurry and end this war, love. I can’t wait until I see your face again.
Grandmother is on the mend, which I am very glad of. Mother is now suffering from acute morning sickness. I try to help, but I never was fond of house chores. I image that it is our house, our home, that I work on. When I am sweeping up the mud from your shoes, or ironing your shirt, it doesn’t seem so hard somehow. I try and think of it as practice, a preparation for the future.
Mass was said at Isabel’s house this morning, but I was unable to attend. I would have gone, God knows I get the chance very rarely, but I didn’t hear about until just a few minutes before it was supposed to start. Mother was sick in the room, grandmother wasn’t doing too well either, although better than she had been. I didn’t have any choice but to stay.
Father Muller called afterwards, just to check up and make sure everything was fine. I thanked him, as was right, for both of us. He promised to keep us in his prayers and to say a Mass for us soon. He also had loads of advice for me. I’d tell you all of it, but it would take too long and my eyes are already starting to nod. It has been a busy day, and the strain of being social the hardest part of it.
Loving you, and my country, and sending a kiss,
Life is hard for me, mostly because anything has yet to happen. I never dealt well with boredom in the past, and I find that nothing has changed. Things are happening, but not beyond the normal training. I came for the danger, for the privilege of suffering through it, and I cannot wait until I reach it.
You would like to see me in a uniform, I think. You think me dashing in whatever I wear, I’m sure, but I think you would love me in a uniform. Shame I didn’t have one to get married in, isn’t it? It was the most thrown together mess of a wedding ever, but it was perfect. Your dress smelled of lavender from being stored with it; the edges of your veil were tinged with yellow from age. Your blue eyes were never prettier than when I saw them through the haze of its cover.
I remember Mrs. Lansky very well. She was the horrid old woman that always smelled of old person. And I hated that with a vengeance. She most certainly is the worst gossip in the county. Poor Jeanne, to be burdened with being polite to her for who knows how long. Good manners say fifteen minutes for a call, Mrs. Lansky says about an hour. She never met good manners.
I assure you I will try to win this war as quickly as possible. I want to see your face as much as you want to see mine. I took the picture that you gave me when we were first engaged. I’m keeping it in my pocket. You should write my mother. There is a small picture of me from two weeks ago. She had it taken for something she wanted to do, I don’t remember what. If I write her as well and ask her to let you have, I think she would. Then you would be able to see my face too. Even the cocky smile you say I have, she managed to catch it.
Father Muller is a good priest, one that I am happy to have known. No other one would have gotten the Bishop’s attention as quickly as he did. He had permission to perform the wedding within a day, or even less than that. It helped, I think, that he knew the bishop well, and was trusted by the bishop.
Sending my love with a kiss,
The letters are starting to stretch out now, you’re moving farther away. I dread losing contact with you, but know that it is bound to happen sometime. I’ve grown used to my new identity. Every morning I stand in front of the mirror, look at myself, and repeat to my reflection “Jeanne Archer, the wife of James Archer.” It seems real now, not like a dream. And you keep yourself safe. I don’t want to have to change what I say. “Jeanne Archer, the wife of the late James Archer” sounds dreadful. Just keep that in mind.
You, boy, look dashing in whatever you wear. Even if you are conceited. I wrote your mother, like you said. I’m hoping to hear from her soon. I admit I was afraid of forgetting what you looked like. I was trying to sketch you, spent the last two weeks working on it. I can tell you, your nose is adorable, but it is the most impossible thing to sketch that I ever tried.
You are the most uncharitable man I ever met. All the same, I must admit that you are right. She stayed for exactly one hour and sixteen minutes. Yes, I was watching the clock. One question though… what does old person smell like?
I’m rather stuck at the moment. Three weeks ago, Jeanne Riche accepted an invitation to a country dance. Now Jeanne Archer doesn’t know how to explain that she is no longer able to attend. Jeanne Riche is the only one they know of, and Jeanne Archer doesn’t have any way to explain by she is going to sit in the corner of the room and refuse the offers of every young man in the room. Married women don’t dance, you know. Except with their husband of course.
Write as soon as you can. Tell me about yourself. What are you doing? Who do you work with? How long before you are sent overseas? What is the weather? Nothing you can say will bore me. I want to hear anything and everything about you.
Sending my love and a kiss,